West Side Story And Its Social Relevance

Photo credit: CRT
Photo credit: CRT

bessy reynaBessy Reyna, Special to CTLlatinoNews.com
A few days ago, as I sat at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, in an auditorium full to capacity, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancing and the quality of the singing of the cast in the production of West Side Story. During two and a half hours there was a never-ending energy and tension created on stage by a cast comprised of nine professional actors and 17 university students or recent graduates.      The play, directed by Cassie Abate, who also choreographed this musical production, reminded me once again of the important role the theater can have in presenting relevant social issues and to provide an opportunity to actors of all races and ethnicities to develop and show their talent.
In the past, I have published interviews with Latino actors who are performing in Connecticut theatrical productions. One of the reasons I have been so involved in presenting them to the readers of CTLatinoNews.com and other publications, is because their presence, and the work they do and their contributions to the success of a play, are constantly being ignored by the mass media in Connecticut. I find it very interesting that even when an actor has the main role in a play, like in the case of Julia Estrada, who plays Maria in West Side Story, there is no information published about them.
As a member of the Connecticut Critics’ Circle, I receive the press releases from many theaters. I read all the names of the actors, searching for those who “might” be Latino. By now, I have developed friendships with members of the some of the media relations departments and they are starting to contact me because they know how important it is to share this information with the Latino community. Press persons  like Elise Hale of Goodspeed Musicals, and Matthew Pugliese of CRT, don’t wait for me to contact them.  On the contrary, by now  they have started asking the casts of their new productions if they are Latinos, and if they would agree to an interview with me. So far, every one of these actors has been kind enough to take time from the busy rehearsal schedule to answer my questions.
From those interviews, I have been gotten to know them better, finding out about their dreams and accomplishments; how their families supported and encouraged them at an early age, when they decided to work in the theater, and also what they expect to accomplish as actors, if they prefer to either go on to work in movies and TV shows, or to stay in the theater.
The production of West Side Story, at the Connecticut Repertory Theater, provided me with the opportunity to interview two actors: Julia Estrada (Maria) who is currently a student at the Texas State University, finishing her senior year in the BFA program, is just starting her work in professional theater, while Yuriel Echezarreta (Bernardo) has had a successful career and has been in important productions like Aladdin and Matilda on Broadway.
Joining the extraordinary talents of the composer Leonard Bernstein who wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, Arthur Laurents the book and Jerome Robbins the choreography; West Side Story was a theatrical triumph when it was first produced in 1957. However, with time, the play became controversial because of its portrayal of Puerto Ricans as gang members in New York. The play –as it is now being performed– is accepted as a classic in history of musical theater. I was curious to know what both Estrada and Echezarreta thought about this play.
West Side Story is still as socially relevant today, as when it was first produced almost sixty years ago. The issues of race and ethnicity are so prevalent in the national news;  the number of hate crimes and the police profiling of minorities are issues which are part of our daily lives and something that we are reminded of constantly when watching this play. The racism of the “white” group is supported and even encouraged by the policeman Krupke, (played by Nick Lawson) when he tells members of the Jets, the white gang “We got to put up with them (the Puerto Ricans) and so do you.” In the play the police are constantly siding with the Jets and harassing the Sharks. Much like it’s happening right now in our society.
I asked Echezarrreta and Estrada this question: West Side Story has been very controversial in some places because some Latinos feel it demeans the culture. What do you think about that? Echezarrreta, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, is aware of how Latinos had been treated in society. He said: “I would not understand the perspective that this show demeans the Latino community. To me, it gives the audience insight as to the kind of world Latinos were living in at the time and how they were viewed by other people in the same city. It speaks to the Hispanic perseverance  of succeeding under harder conditions. It speaks to the strength of spirit and the passionate stubbornness to honor the culture. I think West Side Story is an education in a time and place where cultures blended and what came of it.”
Estrada, who identifies herself as “Chicana” and grew up in Pittsburg, is also a community activist and likes to work on socially meaningful projects, takes a different point of view in answering the same question. She is more critical of the process which excluded Latinos when the play was being created. She said: “Although West Side Story was not made to demean Latinos, and specifically Puerto Rican culture, the exclusion of Latinos in the creative process made it impossible for the writers to create an accurate representation. Over time though, I think the Latino theatre community has taken back this classic and restored the respect. I believe West Side Story is a stunning musical that everyone should be exposed to, but it is not without its flaws. If we think of West Side Story as a starting point, because it was revolutionary to represent Latino stories on stage, then we will understand just how far we need to go.”
Estrada and Echezarrreta are at very different point in their professional careers. She is just learning how to act in front of a camera; he has already done a movie. When I asked them what they do for “fun” she replied “I love to go out dancing. Now I’m learning different Latin dances–Merengue, Salsa. I like to explore cities on foot, to walk.”  He said “I love to EAT! Going out and trying local foods and restaurants is thoroughly enjoyable. Hanging out with friends, being outside having a picnic by the lake near my apartment would be wonderful afternoon for me.”
When the play ends, they will return home, leaving behind a memorable gift for those of us who had the opportunity to admire their talent in the production of CRT.
Visit http://crt.uconn.edu/shows/west-side-story/ for more information.
Bessy Reyna is a member of the Connecticut Critics’ Circle.